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Jaap van Zweden leaves New York Philharmonic maestro

Jaap van Zweden, the musical director of the New York Philharmonic, announced on Wednesday that he would step down at the end of the 2023-24 season, saying the pandemic had made him rethink his life and priorities.

Van Zweden, 60, said in an interview that the upheaval of the pandemic had caused him to reconsider his relationship with the orchestra, which he has conducted since 2018, as well as with his family, which he has rarely seen. during his globe. a few days before the Covid crisis. He said he thought it would be a good time to move on, with the orchestra set to return to the newly renovated David Geffen Hall next fall, a year and a half ahead of schedule.

“It’s not out of frustration, it’s not out of anger, it’s not because of a difficult situation,” he said. “It’s just out of freedom.”

His announcement comes as the Philharmonic faces a series of increasingly complicated challenges as they attempt to recover from the pandemic: The orchestra is homeless this season, playing in venues across the city while his longtime home is under construction, and hopes to make a triumphant return to a converted hall next season.

Van Zweden’s tenure was not without criticism. Although he was praised for maintaining high artistic standards, he was also faced with questions as to whether he had the star power and creative energy to lead the Philharmonic, one of the best ensembles in the world, at a time of challenge and change.

The pandemic struck just as he was settling into work. He has spent much of the past 18 months in the Netherlands, his home country, as Covid-19 swept New York and the orchestra suffered one of the most severe crises in its history.

Van Zweden’s six-year term will be the shortest of all the Philharmonie’s musical directors since Pierre Boulez, the French composer and conductor who conducted the orchestra for six seasons in the 1970s. Van Zweden said that he had planned to leave in 2023, when his initial contract was due to expire. But Deborah Borda, President and CEO of the Philharmonic Orchestra, persuaded him to add a year to give the orchestra more time to settle back into its hall and look for a successor.

In an interview, Borda called van Zweden a “great partner” and said she would work closely with the musicians in the orchestra to find a replacement.

“It’s a musician’s flawless timing sense,” she said of van Zweden’s decision. “You just have to respect it. “

Van Zweden, whose name is pronounced Yahp van ZVAY-den, came to the Dallas Philharmonic, where he was credited with the rebirth of a failing ensemble. At one point, he was the highest paid conductor in the United States, earning over $ 5 million in a single season.

In New York, he was almost immediately faced with the fear of focusing too much on the standard repertoire instead of championing new works. But with Borda as a partner, he made a point of showcasing new composers and helped lead Project 19, an ambitious effort to commission works by women to mark the centenary of the 19th Amendment. Last year he conducted the premiere of Tania León’s “Stride”, which won the Pulitzer Prize for music.

Critics found themselves praising van Zweden’s adventurous spirit, while saying his exuberance could spiral out of control in sometimes garish performances of symphonic standards.

Anthony Tommasini, the New York Times chief classical music critic, praised van Zweden’s adoption of the new music in a 2019 review. “Mr. van Zweden surprised me by championing these initiatives,” a- he writes. “It’s in the standard repertoire, which was supposed to be his selling point, that his track record is most mixed.

Then, in the middle of his second season as Music Director, the pandemic struck. The orchestra was forced to cancel more than 100 concerts, including its entire 2020-21 season, and impose painful budget cuts. He lost over $ 21 million in revenue.

Van Zweden described the pandemic as a personal turning point. For months, he was isolated from Philharmonic players, staying in touch only through occasional Zoom calls. The cancellation of concerts and major tours prevented him from continuing to develop relationships with the musicians, he said.

“Building a relationship as a music director with an orchestra is almost like a daily, hourly experience, and in this time of not being with them you sometimes feel a little helpless that you can’t have that deep connection through. music, ”he said. . “It was all taken away. “

He also felt helpless when he saw the orchestra cut its administrative staff by 40% to survive.

“You feel like there is a lot of damage and there is nothing you can do,” he said. “A lot has happened and there is a lot of pain there. “

Released from an intense performance schedule during the lockdown in the Netherlands, van Zweden has undergone some sort of transformation. At one point, he contracted the Covid. He began to focus on his health, losing around 70 pounds. He tried his hand at composition and listened to more popular music, including Frank Sinatra, Van Halen and Lady Gaga.

He spent more time with his family, including his wife, father, children and grandchildren. He also put new energy into his foundation, which focuses on using music to help families of children with autism.

“It has changed me a lot as a person,” he said. “And when you go through a very intense time as a person, your perspective changes completely.”

A ban on European travelers to the United States left van Zweden isolated from the orchestra: he was stranded abroad as the Philharmonic embarked on a series of pop-up concerts in the city and wondered about his to come up.

He eventually traveled to New York in March to record shows for the subscription streaming service NYPhil +. But in April, when the Philharmonie returned, after 400 days, for their first live concert, he was absent. He said he was not on the podium because the concert was originally scheduled to feature a guest conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen.

“Anytime I could have been here, I would have been here,” he said. “Let this be clear.”

He and Borda spoke about his desire to quit over the summer, and he informed her of his decision at the end of August. He told the orchestra musicians during a rehearsal Wednesday afternoon before their opening concert Friday.

Van Zweden said he’s not sure what he’ll do next, but hasn’t ruled out directing another ensemble. His contract with the Hong Kong Philharmonic is also set to expire in 2024, when he says he will resign there as well.

He said he does not plan to take the top position in the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, which has been looking for a music director since 2018. Van Zweden, who is also a violinist, made his debut in the concert. eminent ensemble, who named him first violin. when he was 19.

For now, he said, he is focused on reopening Geffen Hall, which is in the process of renovating $ 550 million. The Philharmonie accelerated the long-delayed renovation of the hall during the pandemic. In the meantime, the orchestra will perform at various other venues this season, including Carnegie Hall and Alice Tully Hall.

“It will probably be one of the highlights of my life to open this room,” he said. By staying put for what should be the first two seasons of the new venue, he will be able to help the acousticians polish the space.

On Friday he will open the new season in Tully with a concert titled “From Silence to Celebration”. It will begin with a performance of Anna Clyne’s “Within Her Arms,” an enveloping work that van Zweden says would have a special resonance in the midst of the pandemic.

But he added that he didn’t yet know what it would be like to return to indoor performances with the Philharmonic.

“The experience is there,” he said. “It will be weird, but it will be. “

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